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Why does my mind go blank when I need it the most, like in an exam?

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

Understand how stress, anxiety and panic can fog your brain and learn six simple steps to follow if this happens. You can follow these steps to find your focus in an exam or when doing revision.

So you've working hard, you've revised, done everything you can to get all of that information into your head. You have worked for weeks on this and then you get to exam time, your opportunity to show everything you know..... then ……. nothing?! 😐 Why is it that your brain seems to have somehow switched off just when you really need it? Where has the information gone? Is it still in there or has it disappeared? How can I get it back?!

The good news is that it is still in there. What is likely to be going on here is that the stress associated with exams is leading to a change in your brain state. Even more good can learn to notice when this happens and learn techniques to encourage your brain to switch back to it’s thinking state where you will

be able to access and use all that valuable information you have spent ages learning. This is a great skill to learn as part of your exam

preparation. Knowing how the human brain is set up can help us here.

One brain, three minds

Put simply, the human brain consists of three parts that have separate but linked functions:

  1. The part that controls basic functions including hunger, breathing, temperature, sleeping. This is located in the brain stem.

  2. The part that controls our emotions and is responsible for our survival. This is located in the centre of our brains (in the limbic system).

  3. The part that controls higher level functions of planning, anticipating, perceiving time, inhibiting responses. This is located in the wiggly looking bit around the top of the brain (in the cortex). This is where all of that revision and your ability to use it sits.

Our brains are evolved for survival and so it prioritises the processing of things in the following order:

- survival first

- emotions next

- thinking last.

When a threat is perceived our brain switches into survival mode and the fight or flight response takes over. There is no need for planning or anticipating just a need to survive. Our brains are programmed to keep us safe and so in effect our thinking brains are switched off at this moment. This is not AT ALL what we need to happen in an exam situation!

So what leads to our brain switching our thinking brains off just when we need them?

Exams are important and you want to do well. But remember all those thoughts our mind churns out every day? Well it is very common for these to pop up in an exam telling you things like "you haven't done enough work", "you are going to fail", "you are such a loser".

Listening in to these thoughts can make you feel worried and anxious and this can be a signal to our brain that we are in some kind of danger. Although there is literally no danger, it can be enough for our brain to switch us into survival mode, in effect turning off our thinking brain just when we need it. This of course leads to more thoughts such as "I am panicking", "I'm never going to remember anything now", "I really am going to fail" which leads to an increased survival response and less chance of accessing your thinking brain. Your thoughts have pulled you into a storm of difficult feelings and your brain into survival mode.

So how can you get your thinking brain back online in an exam?

The trick is to move away from the negative and worrying thoughts and start to send messages to your brain and body that you are safe, the survival mode is not needed. Remember, thinking only happens when our brains are satisfied we are in a safe, calm place where there is limited danger. Here are six simple steps you can use to un-fog your brain when ever this happens, including in an exam:

  1. Notice you are having thoughts, don't argue with them, don’t answer them back, just notice them. Notice how you feel in your body, notice if you have started to feel worried and scared.

  2. Now is time to start to send your mind and body signals that you are safe. This is called dropping the anchor. Notice your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat and your hands on the desk.

  3. Next, find a rectangle shape in the room (e.g. a window, poster or board on the wall). Follow the rectangle with your eyes. Whilst following the short sides, breath in, whilst following the long sides breath out. This calm breathing will send signals to your body and mind that your are safe.

  4. Look around the room, notice 5 things you can see (e.g. window, desk, blinds, pencil, pen), notice 4 things you can hear (e.g. clock ticking, birds outside, sounds of someone writing), notice 3 things you can feel (e.g, feeling of the table, your shirt, your tie), notice 2 things you can smell (e.g. your tie, your blazer or jumper). If you are allowed to take in a mint, notice what that tastes like.

  5. Continue to breath in a calm way. You should start to feel calmer and less anxious.

  6. Now focus in on the next question you need to tackle in the exam, if thoughts turn up again - just notice them, notice they are just thoughts. Keep you breathing calm and steady, tell yourself you are okay, you are safe.

These techniques are designed to help move your brain back into thinking mode.

When negative thoughts pull you into a storm of difficult feelings, drop the anchor to start to feel safe again and regain the power on your thinking brain.

Learning these steps is a great thing to do as part of your exam preparation as you never know if and when brain fog may happen. It may not, but isn’t it good to be prepared just in case?

In this video I use some bubble wrap to show you how you brain can get foggy and show you what to do about this.

Want to know more?

These are suggestions about things you can do to drop the anchor, move away from panic and up-fog your brain anytime you need to, which might include when revising or in an exam. Would you like to know more about the things you can do when your thinking brain switches off? Please comment below or email me with any questions you have or with anything else you would like to learn about.

Dr Beck x



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